It's the doyen of social travel, the site that makes live-like-a-local accommodation available to all. But as government legislation paves the way for Londoners to legitimately advertise their property on Airbnb, is there a moral dilemma at heart?
In February, the government announced plans to allow Londoners to legally let out their homes or spare rooms short-term. The practice is already rife of course, but unless you've got planning permission it's technically illegal, with possible fines of up to £20,000. Housing minister Brandon Lewis said that reforms to the current law were proposed in light of the popularity of websites like Airbnb and Onefinestay. The updated law will allow homeowners to let out their house, flat or spare rooms for up to three months a year.
I've been using Airbnb regularly since 2011, as a traveller not a host, and in theory I welcome legislation that will allow the site to prosper. In a written statement, Lewis says that the new rules will boost London's "sharing economy". This is true, but only to an extent: the likes of Airbnb hinge upon collaborative consumption, but the company is not to be confused with a social enterprise. You see, what Lewis fails to highlight is that the new legislation will also greatly benefit greedy London landlords who already find themselves in a position of great power. Because these websites are open marketplaces, it means the capital's prolific landlords are also able to take advantage, disguising their string of buy-to-let properties as a flat they've vacated for the weekend. It raises an ethical dilemma because such blatant profiteering by landlords, as opposed to individuals making a quick quid on the side, is not in the spirit of what we might define as a shared economy.
There are fears that too many short-term rentals have a negative impact on the rental market, reducing the number of long-term homes available for locals and pushing up rents in the process. From a landlord's point of view, you can certainly understand the lucrative appeal of the high profit margins short-term rentals can offer as opposed to one year tenancies. It's why, over in Berlin, city officials pointed the finger at Airbnb for increasing rents in the German capital, and swiftly created a new housing law banning regular short-term letting of rooms without permission from the authorities. In London, where a staggering number of residents are destined to become renters for life, we're already beholden to landlords and letting agents up to no good. The rental landscape is grim: dominated by soaring rents, spurious estate agent fees, cruel open days and sealed bids, with desperate potential tenants frequently pitted against each other.
For sites like Airbnb to continue to provide the service its users have come to expect (I want a one-of-a-kind stay in a home that oozes personality), we need to weed out the opportunists. Yes, it's a business, and a very commercially successful one at that, but let theses sites prosper in the way they were originally intended. Let's see more London individuals using these websites to rent out a spare room in their home, or advertising their flat when they're out of town, freeing up much-needed space in the capital. After all, there are plenty of rooms going spare. The new legislation will allow London homeowners (for the purposes of this article, let's distinguish them from the buy-to-let market), who have never had a rental income to make some extra cash, putting some of the power back in the people's hands. It's a chance to recoup some of that eye-wateringly expensive deposit, a chance to make a dent in those crippling mortgage repayments. It's why Airbnb itself has sounded its support of the London reforms, welcoming the opportunity for locals to meet the cost of living in one of the most expensive cities in the world.
So far, so good if you own your property, but not so great if, like the majority of Londoners, you do not. You see, renters are not to be afforded the same power by the new regulations. At present, the law states that subletting a property is only allowed with permission from your landlord, and I don't know about you, but I can't imagine mine will say yes. Sublet without their permission, and you risk the landlord terminating your tenancy without warning. Worse, if you make a profit from subletting, your landlord could even take you to court to claim damages. Go on holiday and sublet your flat out at your peril: when a secure, flexible or introductory tenant sublets their entire home, the tenant loses their tenancy status, meaning you lose the protection of the law. Even in the face of these sobering facts, plenty of London tenants are already subletting rooms, or even whole flats, on sites like Airbnb, without their landlord's permission. I can't say I haven't been tempted to follow them.
Whether you're a host or a traveller there is ethical terrain to negotiate in the light of this legislation. If you are a homeowner with a room going spare, or are away from your flat or house often, these websites present a natural platform for making a bit of extra money. If, by contrast, you are a landlord, and we'll stick with the London example here, who has benefitted from interest rates at historic lows and rents at historic highs, then perhaps you should consider making your property available for long-term rent when good rentals are already so very scarce in the capital. If, like me, you are an Airbnb traveller, only rent from a host who is genuine, someone who doesn't have multiple listings and is clearly profiteering on a big scale. In short: use sites like Airbnb in the spirit in which they were originally intended to be used.